Open the SF Watershed

OpenTheWatershed.org is a local environmental and outdoor organization that has been working with the San Francisco Public Utility Commission to improve public access to its 23,000 acre Crystal Springs Watershed in San Mateo County. While we recognize that the SFPUC’s primary mission is to provide drinking water to San Francisco and beyond, we believe that this mission is fully compatible with improved public access to the area. OpenTheWatershed.org strongly supports the public access improvements now planned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission but would like to see a more far-reaching plan pursued.

SFPUC Assistant General Manager Steve Ritchie summarized the SFPUC’s plans for near and medium-term public access improvements in a December 2014 letter summarized at a San Francisco Board of Supervisors hearing April 2014. Mr. Ritchie and Tim Ramirez, the SFPUC’s Watershed Manager, presented these plans. A large majority of the several dozen speakers at the hearing were strongly in favor of the plans and our outreach efforts have consistently found the public is excited to visit the Watershed. Our organization’s primary goal is to improve public access to the Watershed, but we are also an environmental organization, and we applaud the SFPUC for its careful studies, adherence to environmental regulations and its ultimate decision to move forward with these projects.

We understand that some groups, such as the Committee for Green Foothills, would prefer the Watershed remain closed to the public, but we believe that the currently planned improvements, improvements encouraged by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and other trail openings will not harm the area’s delicate environment or the viability of our water supply for the following reasons:

• Minimal Impact – Most of the planned improvements do not require new trails or any construction but will simply open existing service roads to the public. Where trail construction is required, it can be done in an environmentally responsible way, as is standard practice in the Bay Area’s other Watersheds and open space areas.

• Water Security – New routes planned for public access are no closer to the reservoirs than existing, publicly accessible routes. While wildfires and illegal activity in the Watershed are minor concerns, the proposed new permit system will ensure that visitors know and agree to abide by the SFPUC’s rules. Responsible visitors will act as “eyes on the trail” to help deter illegal activities.

• Water system improvements – The Crystal Springs Watershed is largely a back up system to the Hetch Hetchy Water supply. The $283 million upgrade to the Harry Tracy Water Treatment Plant above Millbrae will greatly increase the reliability of this backup. Simultaneously, the seismic upgrades to the Hetch Hetchy system will greatly decrease the need for Crystal Springs to act as an emergency supply. Combined, these construction projects will more than compensate for any hypothesized additional risk to the system caused by increased public access. As we look forward to the planned 2019 completion of the projects currently underway, we urge the SFPUC to take concrete steps to open the Whiting Ridge Trail and plan out additional environmentally sustainable openings for routes to the coast and easily accessed loop routes.

•The benefits are compelling: Regional trail connections – These projects would link the Watershed to surrounding local, state, and GGNRA parkland and establish a truly interconnected trail system a system remarkably similar to, yet larger than that operated with the cooperation of the Marin Municipal Water District. This would be a tremendous resource for residents of northern San Mateo County and southern San Francisco.

•Public Health and Happiness – Both of these areas, many of whose residents are low-income, are currently underserved by open space. Access improvements could significantly improve the health, happiness, and quality of life.

•Achievability – Rarely is there an opportunity to do so much good with so little investment: As noted above, the trails we seek to open are, for the most part, existing dirt service roads, already routinely used by maintenance trucks. Little new construction would be required, meaning that both cost and the potential environmental impact would be minimized.

We urge all parties involved to come together and plan for comprehensively improved public access to the Watershed. The opportunities to connect with nature, exercise, and enjoy the great outdoors will be greatly appreciated by current and future generations of San Francisco and San Mateo County residents.

The Historic SF Peninsula “Crystal Springs” Watershed

From the Southern end of Sweeny Ridge in San Bruno to the eastern end of McNee Ranch in Pacifica, is an open space area that stretches all the way to highway 92 and then south past Filoli. This 23,000 acres property is not wilderness, it has in it an entire network of well-maintained service roads, some of which have a history of use all the way back to the 1860’s. The dirt and gravel roads in the area wind their way through thick forests of redwood, cypress and oak trees. The roads go past a beautiful mountain lake, Lake Pilarcitos, which was the first reliable water source for the city of San Francisco.

This is the SF Watershed, and you are forbidden to go there. The SF Watershed land is managed by the SFPUC, otherwise known as the San Francisco Water Department.  It is entirely closed to the public; it is only open to a few select SF water department employees and a few politicians from San Francisco. The SF Watershed has some of the most important historical sites in the Bay Area, and because it has been closed for so long much of this history is forgotten from public consciousness.

The untold history inside the watershed is as important as the Bay Area discovery site, Mission Dolores, the Barbary Coast Trail, or any of our historically important places. Pilarcitos Dam was completed in 1867 right after the civil war. Designed by master engineer Herman Schussler it was a marvel of engineering for its time. The dam created the first reliable water source for San Francisco, Pilarcitos Lake. Water was shipped to the city via a redwood flume powered by gravity.  Before this development water in San Francisco was sold by the barrel. Without water the city would not have grown, when you consider how much the San Francisco Bay Area has shaped the history of the world, it puts into perspective how important this dam is to our cultural history. There is at the plaque at Pilarcitos Dam placed in 1967 at the one hundred year anniversary of the construction of the dam. It is a plaque paid for with public money, on public land, that no one in the public is allowed to see.

There are other significant historical sites in the watershed, including Stone Dam, pieces of the redwood flume that are still standing, homes dating back to the 1860’s and countless other artifacts left un accounted for left by the Spring Valley Water company before it was acquired by the San Francisco Water Department in the 1930’s.